You would think that I'd be used to it by now.
Another Pro Tour, another humiliating defeat. At this point, it has become something of a long-standing joke. I work for weeks, sometimes months, on a format, figuring everything out that I need to succeed. Ultimately, I do well at a tournament where I Top 8 a Grand Prix or win a PTQ, and I'm onto the big stage! When the newest set comes out, I test for hours and hours, either with friends or on Magic Online, ultimately coming to the same flawed conclusions.
And then I implement those flawed conclusions at the Pro Tour, and fall on my face. After a while, it doesn't even sting anymore. It just ends up being this constant ache in my gut.
That feeling will eat you alive. Eventually. At least until your next dance with success. Then it recedes, and you convince yourself that you were mistaken. You convince yourself that this moment, this bit of sunshine is what keeps you going. This moment in the spotlight is what keeps you coming back and wanting more.
We build ourselves back up, just to be torn down.
My entire life I've always thought I was a smart kid. And at most of those points, I was a big fish in a small pond. High school was pretty much a joke, and my local Magic scene was not a place to foster strong, young minds. At most points in my life, what I lacked most was someone willing to challenge me. And as the years have passed, I've only felt myself slipping farther back, becoming more bitter than the year before.
I've just learned to hide it better.
Most people who play Magic have this illusion that they are better than they actually are. We all know the type. The guy who gets frustrated at your LGS because he flooded out against a "bad player" or "worse deck." My major problem is that I don't have that veil over my eyes. I know exactly how bad I am at Magic. I know my limitations, and it takes every ounce of strength I have, every single week, to try and overcome those limitations. Sometimes I have the best deck in the room. Sometimes I play above expectations. But those times are few and far between, and otherwise my results are exactly what I expect them to be.
I am a good Magic player that got incredibly lucky to be where I am. I am often charismatic, as you probably saw during my deck tech at the Pro Tour, and I like to crack a joke every now and then, but I am not a great Magic player. And that is something I have to live down every day of my life. And every day it gets harder and harder.
But I am my toughest critic because there are very few people around me willing to put the same amount of pressure that I put on myself. Friends and family will tell you to shake it off. After all, Magic is just a game and this result was just a single tournament. You'll get' em next time, buddy! And maybe you will.
But I'm not going to sugarcoat anything for you, because that's not the type of person I am. The truth is that Magic tournaments aren't built to create winners. Every single person who shows up to a Magic tournament will leave defeated, except for one. But that's just the nature of competition. Highlander. There can be only one champion. And sometimes that champion is you, but more often than not it will be someone else.
The trick is realizing this before it buries you.
Learning from Mistakes
I like to think that Magic is a game that actually rewards mistakes. Losing is the best thing that can happen to you in a Magic tournament because it forces you to take a second look. Every single time you can look back at a game and identify exactly what went wrong is a moment where you gain clarity, and there aren't that many opportunities in life where you can find that clarity.
Magic exemplifies every aspect of our personality. Deckbuilders will gain a sense of accomplishment when their creation comes to fruition. Spikes will gain a level of confidence when their complex decision tree results in their winning of a game. Hard workers will see their dedication pay off when hours of playtesting results in winning a tournament.
And when we lose, those that are passionate will feel it in their bones.
You will scrutinize every single aspect of a game you lost, trying to figure out what went wrong. You will dissect everything from card choices to sideboarding decisions or pinpoint judgment calls inside of the actual game, all in an effort to figure out what you did incorrectly, all to simply give yourself a better shot at winning your next game. Your next match. Your next tournament.
I am my toughest critic because I have to be. That's just who I am. And when I find myself failing when I reach a certain height, I know that something fundamental has to change.
Something about my game is off, whether it is my level of play, testing process, or just my outlook on Magic. And it is my duty, both to the readers and myself, to do something about it. I owe it to you to be a better player and a better person. I don't accept that I am worse at Magic than anyone else. I can't. It isn't in my nature. I can recognize someone who has worked harder than me, but I know my potential, and I know what I can accomplish so long as I am willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do so.
And it all starts right here.
The Big Show
While the Pro Tour didn't go well for me, I did want to take a look at my testing process. At some point, something went very wrong, and I ended up getting absolutely destroyed at the tournament. I can pinpoint a few spots where I made mistakes in my playing, but the heart of the problem came in my playtesting, as well as my ego.
Let me start from the beginning.
For years now, I've gone into hundreds of different Magic tournaments feeling like my preparation process was sufficient. I had played the games. I had learned exactly what I needed to learn in order to succeed, and this time was no different. But what I thought I had learned ended up being far from the truth and was likely my biggest failing.
A few weeks ago on the long drive home from the Open Series in New Jersey, I had an idea. This idea stemmed from my short-lived affair with Ensoul Artifact, a card that is incredibly powerful, yet also incredibly vulnerable. How could I make it better though? How could I make it more consistent?
Many of you may laugh at this card, but I can honestly say that Heliod's Pilgrim is the second best card in the Ensoul Artifact deck behind Ensoul Artifact itself, simply because it acts like a proxy of the powerful enchantment. The fact that Heliod's Pilgrim is the second best card in my deck might say a lot about the deck itself, but I will stand by my decision to play it given the information I had.
Long story short, I tried out many different iterations of the deck. I tried Battlefield Thaumaturge with Hour of Need. I tried out Bronze Sable, for crying out loud. Ultimately, I ended up winning a significant portion of my matches on Magic Online with the following list:
And what I ended up playing at the Pro Tour was pretty similar, with only a few minor changes. But I like to tinker. I like to take the information handed to me and make decisions based on theory rather than physical testing, but mostly because I don't have enough time to try out every single idea I have running around in my head. Plus, I had the whole Draft format to figure out as well.
What I learned in testing is that the version with Hero of Iroas felt better than any other version. While it wasn't spectacular in my deck, unlike the U/W Heroic decks, it made smaller things easier. It made Heliod's Pilgrim cost one less virtual mana. It allowed me to have some turns that were otherwise impossible.
It also attacked for two.
But how could I make it better? Stratus Walk felt pretty solid, being able to cycle or give my creature flying was great. Every time I played Stratus Walk, it felt pretty solid. I wanted to add more, but I couldn't really figure out what to cut other than a few copies of Singing Bell Strike. And since I needed to do some more drafting, I decided to play what I thought was correct instead of testing my theory behind the changes.
Enter the Pro Tour, where everything fell apart. From my awkward start in Draft at 1-2, to my relentlessly aggressive Jeskai Aggro opponents, I fell time and time again, but why?
Cutting down to one copy of Singing Bell Strike made it virtually impossible to race an opposing Seeker of the Way or even Mantis Rider. The card that had been helping me win those games was no longer in my deck, and the useless Stratus Walks rotted in my hand while I sat helpless and hopeless. I never thought that such a small change could affect my tournament so dramatically.
In a deck like Heroic, every piece has its uses. We're using every part of the buffalo to win games. I can't tell you how many times I've won a game because my opponent could kill every last one of my creatures except for the Heliod's Pilgrim. When you exchange one small piece for another, you will feel the differences almost immediately, and that wasn't something I realized until it was too late. After the tournament was over for me, at a lowly 2-5, I couldn't help but reflect on exactly what I did wrong and wish I had taken more time, been more meticulous. Failure is a powerful motivator, and nothing in life will get your engine running hotter than a loss at something you love. And those losses are only magnified by the stage in which they are set.
I've played in a lot of Pro Tours compared to most people. I have only cashed in two of them. In the last eight years, I have only managed to make the Top 75 at a Pro Tour twice. Once you put something like that into perspective, you can't help but wonder why you're doing it. For me, it is some combination of wanting to prove myself but also striving to be something greater than I currently am. Every loss at a Pro Tour stings, and I wouldn't have it any other way. When the pain stops, that's when I know all is lost.
And with every defeat comes a million questions and a desire to immediately regain the traction that you've lost. After every major loss, all I ever want to do is run it back after I discover the things I did wrong. And this time was no different.
What I learned from this past weekend was that Standard is not a format built around synergy. At least not right now. Every opponent I played against outmatched me on power level at the tournament because my deck was not built optimally. I am convinced that there is an Ensoul Artifact deck out there that can win. It can be powerful, but your bad draws have absolutely no chance of winning tough games. One or two removal spells from the opponent will shut the door on you, because your deck sacrifices card quality and card advantage for speed and synergy.
The major flaw in Soul Blade is your inability to come back when you're behind. If you stumble, ever, you will lose. That isn't the case for many of the better decks in Standard, because that's just not how decks are currently built. Jeskai Aggro, Abzan Midrange, and every other strategy all have spells that can dig them out of any situation. But that's the trick, isn't it? They're playing those cards because they can win from any spot.
I don't know if I'm ever going to pick up another Ornithopter. I've already broken the pact I made with myself five years ago, that I would never again play Ornithopter in a sanctioned Magic tournament. I don't know if I have the heart to do it again. I am sure it is just coincidence, but the two Pro Tours where I played Ornithopter are the only two Pro Tours where I failed to make Day 2, however, I will subconsciously make that connection every time I see an Ornithopter in a decklist. I will stay very far away.
I just can't handle the swings.
But as we examine Standard after the Pro Tour, a few things are perfectly clear. For one, Jeskai and Abzan decks are both incredibly powerful. The two archetypes made up 75% of the Top 8 at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, and you can bet they're going to be everywhere in your next Standard event. But what you probably aren't aware of is that each deck can be customized in a variety of ways.
Not every aspect of these two archetypes is set in stone. Even Abzan doesn't need to play Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid, as Mike Sigrist showed us by playing Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer. In all honesty, Mike Sigrist's version of Abzan is likely the best version in Standard, as his loss in the Top 8 came to a sequencing error and a poor choice with Thoughtseize.
But one thing remains clear: Thoughtseize is still good. Two Abzan decks in the Top 4 opted to play four copies in their maindeck, meaning that even in three-color decks, having access to Thoughtseize alleviates many of the problems that a midrange deck can have. If their spells are trying to go over you, stripping away a key planeswalker or removal spell is fantastic. If they're trying to go under you, keeping them off their natural curve with Thoughtseize is also great.
But throughout the Top 8, one truth kept shining through: it is far more important to have the right threats than the right answers. Cards like Siege Rhino and Goblin Rabblemaster don't leave much breathing room. If you can't kill them immediately, they're usually going to run wild on you. And even if you do kill the first one, the second one might get you. As everyone now knows, Siege Rhino never comes to the party alone.
While it is no fluke that Shaun McLaren made it to the finals of Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, we did watch every single Jeskai Aggro deck eventually fall to one Abzan deck or another. So if Abzan is Rock, and Jeskai is Scissors, then what is Paper? Is there a deck that can beat them both?
I don't have the answer yet, but I assure you that I'll be working relentlessly to find that answer every single day. Because that's just what I do. That's who I am. That's my job and my passion.